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What’s the Move? Navigating Harvard’s Lackluster Social Scene

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{shortcode-24643cedbe14221289878261864001a8ceef067a}n Wednesday night, the eve of Housing Day, hordes of freshmen will participate in a tradition known as River Run, in which students attempt to drink a shot of alcohol in each of Harvard’s nine upperclassman river Houses.

This year, freshmen will have swipe access to the Houses during the event — a noted shift from past River Runs, during which freshmen were known to scale fences and walls, dodge police officers and security guards, and sneak through underground tunnels.

The Dean of Students Office will also provide games and food trucks, in addition to an enhanced security presence — all changes geared toward deterring students from putting themselves into unsafe situations.

But some students said this change “takes the fun away” from a beloved student-organized tradition defined not by administrative involvement, but the lack thereof.

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“That defeats the whole purpose of River Run because all the fun is from running from the guards and trying to find creative ways to get into the houses,” Gabi Poniz ’26 said. “If you just walk in, what’s the point?”

It is a hit Harvard’s social scene may not be able to afford.

Many students described a social scene where besides a handful of bright spots — such as Housing Day and the Harvard-Yale game — traditional college revelry, characterized by roaring parties, vibrant and frequent tailgates, and school spirit in abundance, has been missing at Harvard.

While administrators cite a hands-off approach to social life — and a lack of available funding for College-organized parties and concerts — some students said officially sanctioned social events did not meet the mark.

In interviews with The Crimson, student group leaders, two top College administrators, and dozens of undergraduates tackled a difficult question: where is Harvard’s sense of fun?

Lagging Behind

It was the morning of Harvard-Yale in 2022, and students were taking matters into their own hands.

Days earlier, Lauren E. Brandt ’01 — then the interim dean of students — had announced a set of restrictions on tailgates before The Game, including limiting alcohol distribution and prohibiting undergraduate-hosted pregames.

The announcement was met with frustration from students, who felt the administration’s stance stifled their hopes for Harvard’s most eagerly-anticipated football game.

In response, Harvard’s final clubs organized a separate, unofficial pregame for students which began at Allston Field before being forced to migrate to the bank of the Charles River and, finally, the Malkin Athletic Center Lawn.

The scene was different one year later in New Haven, where an expanse of parking lots outside the Yale Bowl were left mostly free for student- and alumni-organized festivities before The Game.

“I think that they do Harvard-Yale a little better than we do,” Sean M. Fallon ’23-24 said.

While Harvard’s unsanctioned tailgate ultimately proved successful, many students said the restrictions were one example in a widespread pattern of Harvard social events falling short of their ideal vision of carefree college fun.

“There’s fun on the level of clubs and organizations and stuff,” Brooke C. Jones ’26 said of Harvard’s social atmosphere. “But I feel like when it comes to parties and school spirit for sports, we do lag behind state schools and other universities.”

F. Umaama Hussain ’27 said that coming to Harvard, she wasn’t under any illusions about the campus social scene.

“I don’t think I had expectations of Harvard being a very fun place to go to,” Hussain said. “And my expectations were met.”

Though DSO partner organizations like the College Events Board and the First Year Social Committee plan events including concerts like Yardfest and Crimson Jam and parties like the First Year Formal, some students said these events can be disappointments.

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Isha Agarwal ’24, a former CEB co-president, said she has often been put in the position of defending Harvard against the “popular critique” that its concert headliners are “one-hit-wonders from the 2000s.”

“Especially when you think of big-ticket events like Yardfest, where if you compare the name of our headliner to even other Boston schools or other schools around the country, it’s often hard to understand why Harvard is not able to get a more up-and-coming artist or someone who’s more popular today,” Agarwal said.

Honor C. S. Pimentel ’25, the Quincy House Committee co-chair, said students are more likely to buy into social events that are organized by their peers.

“It’s easier for students — like for us all — to have fun at an event if it feels initiated by students,” Pimentel said. “I think that kind of helps with the stigmatization of a University-organized event being lame.”

‘There Was Just Literally Nothing’

But as Harvard’s undergraduates wonder why the College can’t throw the party of their dreams, administrators say the pool of money is quickly drying up. The culprit, they say, is a student body that has increasingly opted out of paying the Student Activities Fee.

Revenues from the optional $200 fee — which funds the College Events Board, HoCos, the Harvard Undergraduate Association, and the Student Advisory Committee for the Harvard Foundation — have decreased by $70,000 this year compared to last year, following a rise in opt-outs when students were sent home from campus in 2020.

According to Associate Dean for Student Engagement Jason R. Meier, the flood of opt-outs left the DSO in a tricky financial situation.

“Students are demanding more funding for events and activities, and the funds were gone — there was literally nothing,” Meier said.

“We’re never going to get the headliners that you all want for Crimson Jam and Yardfest,” Meier added. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, get Ice Spice’ last year. Ice Spice was going for a cool half a million dollars last year, without an album yet.”

Dean of Students Thomas Dunne said the SAF being optional is “rare” compared to peer institutions.

“I do think that there is an issue where, to say to students, ‘You can waive and not pay this fee,’ there isn’t a really easy way to then say to that student, ‘You chose to waive the fee, so you can’t come to Yardfest, you can’t come to Crimson Jam, you can’t get on a Yale bus,’” Dunne said in an interview Wednesday.

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Meier urged students to be more conscientious about their decision about whether to contribute to the SAF fund and the impact that has on the student body.

“This conversation about social life and the student activity fee is all wrapped up together,” he added. “I think a lot of students don’t realize by opting out, they’re exacerbating this larger problem that we already have.”

Agarwal said her role on CEB changed her perspective on administration-sponsored social programming.

“I’ve often come on the defense of Harvard’s social life, when I hear students or my friends or anyone complain, like ‘Oh, Harvard doesn’t have any events,’ or ‘Harvard doesn’t have school spirit,’ things like that, just because I’ve been involved in CEB and I’ve seen all of the red tape they have to go through to plan events,” Agarwal said.

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Regarding annual celebrations like the Harvard-Yale tailgate and River Run, Dunne said he wants the DSO to “be connected to the celebratory traditional nature.”

“I think traditions are really important, and I think it’s really great,” Dunne said. “It’s a great way for us to show people who are not at Harvard what Harvard looks like and feels like.”

Though Dunne said he hopes undergraduate social life is “student-directed,” he stressed that the DSO has to ensure student safety when students participate in large, unruly events — particularly with alcohol.

“I do think it’s really important that collectively, we are not just keeping mindful of our own safety but the safety of others,” Dunne said. “I have been in the incredibly difficult situation of communicating with families when something did happen, and it’s a horrible experience for everybody.”

‘People’s Definition of Fun’

Though some students remain underwhelmed by what the College has to offer, many said Harvard students lack the school spirit necessary to sustain a vibrant, college-wide social life — particularly when compared to other schools.

“I think people have a lot of pride going to Harvard,” Fallon said. “But as it pertains to sports, for example, and that kind of school spirit, I would not put us at the top of the heap.”

Fhasal M. Alam ’27 said Harvard could look to Duke as a model of how to “both work hard and play hard.”

“I think Harvard could definitely kind of take that into consideration in terms of inspiration for their sports teams and that kind of thing,” Alam said.

Many students said that because of the difficulties involved with throwing on-campus events, much of Harvard’s party scene is centered around its exclusive final clubs, which have large spaces and minimal oversight.

Maggie R. Mano ’24 described fun at Harvard as “catered” and “very exclusive.”

“There’s the final clubs, the parties, but you have to be invited, you have to be in the right circles. You have to kind of make your own fun if you’re not really with those groups,” Mano said.

Meier said he finds the culture around final clubs at Harvard — which Meier said “really control private, off-campus parties” — “really worrisome.”

Some students have taken it upon themselves to try to build a positive, inclusive culture across the College.

In the fall of his sophomore year, Kwaku O. Adubofour ’24 said he noticed increased school spirit around Harvard-Yale and wished that level of excitement for games could occur “every weekend.”

The weekend before The Game, he started an Instagram account with the username “harvardstate1636,” which now has nearly three thousand followers. In the fall season, Adubofour — who plays football for Harvard — posts 3 to 4 times per week with information about games, tailgates, and attire themes for the student section.

The posts encourage student attendance at a wide range of Harvard athletics games, including football and basketball as well as less-attended games like women’s soccer and field hockey. Adubofour said he thinks the posts generated a significant increase in attendance.

“We’d come in 150 kids deep to a basketball game after the tailgate and the team would tell us, ‘We haven’t seen this many fans there in a long time,’” Adubofour said.

Austin D. Kaufman ’25 also hopes to bolster school spirit — by institutionalizing a turkey mascot, a project in collaboration with Harvard Athletics and approved by the Harvard Undergraduate Association. Kaufman said he envisions students walking through the Yard on their way to class and “giving the turkey a fist bump.”

“I think people underrate the value of a smile, or a laugh,” Kaufman said. “I think it’s just this way to reach a lot of students and diffuse some of the tension that might get in the way of the fun that can come with an institution like Harvard.”

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Some students said though Harvard’s social life may at times seem exclusive, restrictive, or lackluster, it is up to students to find alternatives.

“I don’t think that Harvard’s boring, but I think it depends on people’s definition of fun,” Kylie L. Hunts-in-Winter ’25 said.

“One limitation here at Harvard is that you do have to make somewhat of an extenuating effort to have fun, it’s not just easily accessible,” she added.

“There’s so much that you can critique in terms of exclusivity on Harvard’s campus. I feel like it is such a big feature that governs so much of social life,” Taylor Fang ’25 said. “But I do think that there is also a parallel tendency of a lot of people who complain about it but aren’t necessarily trying to do anything about it, or even really seeking out alternate social spaces.”

Chibuikem C. “Chuby” Uche ’24 — who last year lived in Currier House’s ten-man suite, known for hosting parties in its spacious common room — also said students have the power to change their own social landscapes.

“If you’re someone who’s wanting to go to these events, which clearly shows that you have this drive, you want to have fun or do things — don’t be afraid to just do one on your own. Foster your own environment, create the environment that you want to see,” Uche said.

—Staff writer Natalie K Bandura can be reached at natalie.bandura@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Azusa M. Lippit can be reached at azusa.lippit@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @azusalippit or on Threads @azusalippit.

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